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James Jamerson: a hidden masterpiece

James JamersonYou don’t need me to tell you about James Jamerson, the first of the Motown session musicians to be recognised for his outstanding individual contribution to the Sound of Young America. It was Jamerson who revolutionised the use of the bass guitar in popular music, yanking it away from a restricted role by creating the mobile, often melody-rich lines that got us dancing to Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar”, Kim Weston’s “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While)”, the Supremes’ “Love is Here (And Now You’re Gone)”, the Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There”, Jr Walker’s “(I’m a) Road Runner”, the Isley Brothers’ “Tell Me It’s a Rumour, Baby”, the Temptations’ “(I Know) I’m Losing You”, Barbara Randolph’s “I Got a Feeling” and so many others (those eight tracks comprise just a rather obvious selection of my own particular favourites from the golden age of Hitsville USA).

Every now and then a previously hidden gem of Jamerson’s art emerges, and one such is to be heard on Finders Keepers: Motown Girls 1961-67, a compilation of hitherto unconsidered trifles put together by Keith Hughes and Mick Patrick for Ace Records. Containing non-hit tracks by such luckless thrushes as LaBrenda Ben, Hattie Littles, Carolyn Crawford, Anita Knorl, Linda Griner, Thelma Brown and Liz Lands as well as rejected tracks by the hit-making Supremes, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Brenda Holloway, the Marvelettes, the Velvelettes and the Miracles (with Claudette Rogers singing lead), it is not, one has to say, an absolutely essential purchase. Although there are a handful of genuine highlights, notably the Velvelettes’ Northern beauty “Let Love Live (A Little Bit Longer)” and the one well-known track, Mary Wells’ “What’s Easy For Two”, in general the selection confirms the shrewdness of Gordy’s quality control department, whose stern judges assessed songs for single or album release.

But there is one moment which more than justifies the album’s existence, and that moment is “No More Tear Stained Make Up”, a Smokey Robinson song recorded by Martha and the Vandellas in 1966 and previously released only on their LP of the same year, Watchout!, where it languished until this resurrection. I confess that I never noticed the special quality of this song, which resides chiefly in the fact that it functions as a vehicle for some of Jamerson’s most inventive playing

Some may also enjoy Smokey’s lyric: “I’ve had no use to wear a / Pair of lashes or mascara / And my eyes have natural shadows from the crying / That I’ve done so much of lately / Cos it really hurt me greatly / When I found the love you vowed was only lying…” I’m certainly among them, particularly for the “to wear a”/”mascara” rhyme. But the true beauty of the track is the way Jamerson exploits the cool medium-paced swing of the rhythm — not unlike the airy, hip-swivelling groove of the Miracles’ “I Like It Like That” from two years earlier — with what amounts to a running commentary on the top line and the chord changes, exposing his wonderful instinct for the best way to embellish a simple song without cluttering or overwhelming it.

Born in 1936, Jamerson learnt to play the double bass while a pupil at Detroit’s Northwestern High School and spent the early years of his career playing with jazz groups. He switched to the electric instrument in 1961, at just about the time he was starting to work in the Motown studio, but on many of his recordings you can hear the influence of his grounding in jazz in the fluency of his double-time fills and run-ups, the passing notes, the register leaps, a willingness to add syncopation through the use of rests, and — on a track like this — the ability to “walk” a 4/4 rhythm. There are even times on some of the early Motown tracks, such as “A Love Like Yours (Don’t Come Knocking Everyday)”, the B-side of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave”, recorded in 1963, when it sounds as though he was still using the upright instrument. And listen to him on the Supremes’ magnificent “Love Is Here (And Now You’re Gone)” from 1966, how he reshapes what must have begun life as a basic four-on-the-floor stomper with leaping triplet-based figures and a lovely, almost acoustic tone that would not have shamed Charles Mingus.

I wish I had the skill and patience to transcribe his playing on “No More Tear Stained Make Up”. Ranging up and down the stave and across the bar-lines, it would probably look as beautiful as it sounds.

* The photograph is taken from Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of the Legendary Bassist James Jamerson, the self-published book by Dr Licks (Allan Slutsky) which first appeared in 1989 and sparked the interest that led to a Grammy-winning documentary film in 2002 and the highly successful reunion tours of the Funk Brothers, as the Motown session men called themselves — too late, alas, for Jamerson, who died in 1983, aged 47.

26 Comments Post a comment
  1. Brilliant, Richard. On a sub-par Motown song it’s usually Jamerson that keeps you listening, and on the great ones it’s often his his changes that you actually hear as the melody. I rue the week in the Seventies that I failed to go to Ronnie’s to see Maria Muldaur, whose band included Jamerson – as well as the wonderful Amos Garrett…

    May 15, 2013
  2. John Obrien #

    Richard you ‘re wrong there! Actually I do need you to remind me.that goes for every beautifully researched,extemporaneous email that I’ve read for eons written by you.
    Thank you for continually bringing it all back home to me.
    John Obrien
    Retired Australian radio broadcaster.

    May 15, 2013
  3. Peter #

    Just dug out the track (via Rdio), and I’m grinning from ear to ear, thanks Richard for yet another wonderful signpost. It’ll exercise fingers and thumbs for me to attempt just one of those lines (have come to bass-playing rather late).

    I love so many of his tracks, although “Why would I change the strings, they’re not broke?” may be a great quote, but I wish someone had give J a Rickenbacker, I really do!

    If Martin’s remark above is correct….damn! I was at that gig, knew very little about bass or JJ, and was transfixed by Ms Muldaur & Amos Garrett’s amazing style. And was introduced to tequila that night. Only excuse I have is that I was so young that I was frightened to be in a grown-ups’ place like Ronnies…

    May 15, 2013
  4. As always, an excellent post – thank you Richard. This Standing in the Shadows reference also prompted me to dig out Love Child and the wondrous “How Long Has That Evening Train Been Gone”. I have also done absolutely no work for the last hour…

    May 15, 2013
  5. Phil Shaw #

    Another exquisite read, Richard. I was particularly interested by your highlighting a song by the criminally underrated (by Motown at least) Velvelettes, namely ‘Let Love Live (A Little Bit Longer)’.

    I think I’m right in saying that this wonderful track, featuring Cal Gill on lead vocal, has never been released on vinyl. This means it does not tend to get played at Northern Soul nights because of the aficionados’ puritanical insistence on vinyl rather than CD. It remains something of a hidden gem, to coin a phrase, even in a subculture devoted to such “secret” delights.

    For confirmation of what Motown missed out on by not getting behind Cal Gill and the gals, compare the Velvelettes’ version of ‘These Things Will Keep Me Loving You’ with Diana Ross’ 1970 version.

    Best regards, Phil

    May 15, 2013
  6. There’s a clip of Jaco Pastorius talking bass on Youtube – one of his tips is be aware of melody. This is a perfect example of that – Jamerson bubbling around the P-bass (in a way only JJ can) but pulling into focus for the hooks and highlights.

    One thing possibly adding to the upright sound – a piece of foam – a ‘mute’, Fender placed beneath the bridge ‘ashtray’ covers on the early 60s models. Add to this Jamerson’s choice of flatwound strings – and that’s almost as close as you’ll get to standup sound on an electric bass. A fretted electric anyway

    If you haven’t heard it yet, check out his lost composition Fever in the Funkhouse.

    Transcription for Fever here

    May 15, 2013
    • Thanks for that, Mondo. Do you remember Cliff Barton, a prodigy who played bass guitar with Cryil Davies’s R&B All Stars, Long John Baldry’s Hoochie Coochie Men, Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames and others before dying from the effects of heroin addiction in 1968, aged just 24? My recollection is of him playing an Epiphone bass, or something like that, with foam damping somewhere near the bridge; he had what I think of as the best live bass guitar sound I’ve ever heard.

      May 15, 2013
      • Hi Richard, I knew Cliff and played his bass when I stood in for him with LJB & the HCM at the Mojo Club in Sheffield. I had an Epiphone Rivoli but he played a Gibson EB-2 with low tension flatwound strings which gave him that sound. I spent some time with him and he taught me a lot, a great bass player, a tragic loss although I seem to remember that before his death he had decided to quit the music business as he wad fed up with playing covers.

        July 23, 2014
      • Thanks for that, Dave. I envy you those memories. Am I right that he used some sort of foam in the bridge area?

        July 23, 2014
      • Hi Richard, yes he had about 2 inches of soft foam tight up against the bridge to shorten the sustain and he played with an aggressive downward plucking style which required a slightly raised action to prevent fret rattle. Putting it all together, I think he was after an electric double bass sound. The only video of him I’ve seen is this one which shows his right hand technique and you can just about see the foam at 0.22 seconds. Hope this helps, regards Dave.

        July 28, 2014
    • PS I’ve got “Fire in the Funkhouse” on the recent Earl Van Dyke compilation, but it’s even better to listen to it while following the transcription.

      May 15, 2013
      • I know Cliff’s name and some Cyril Davies tunes, but I’ll check out – thanks for the tip Richard.

        For one of the most unusal techniques check Tab Martin of The Peddlers. An electric played in an upright style

        May 16, 2013
  7. Adam Glasser #

    Many thanks for a brilliant comprehensive piece full of rich references to explore.
    Martha Reeves on her 1991 UK Tour ( for which I played keyboards) had James Jamerson’s bass lines transcribed on many of her charts. The bassist on this tour was obliged to play them exactly as written. This – amongst other details -was part of her meticulous drive to recreate the a ‘motown sound’ as accurately as possible on live gigs.

    May 15, 2013
  8. Fascinating stuff. Thanks, Richard. Took me a while to find a way to listen to this. It’s here though I must confess I prefer the Marvelettes’ version (which is on iTunes & YouTube). There’s also a brief clip of Elvis Costello singing it on ‘Spectacle’ here:

    May 15, 2013
  9. Now that’s a great piece of music writing, Richard, combining a love of language with musical knowledge, and sharing it in a way that makes people eager to check out the examples. (As all the above letters have shown.) You’re giving us all a great treat with these blogs. I first saw Dr Licks’s book in its original self-published format in 1989, at Hitsville in Detroit – nearly 15 years later when it inspired “Standing in the Shadows” it showed just how many people were fascinated by what those mostly uncredited musicians did.

    May 16, 2013
  10. You kind of missed something important about Jamerson’s career : he DID not switch completely to the Fender Precision Bass : the upright bass stayed the “real man bass” to his own taste (as opposed to the electric bass, that from various sources he called “the pussy bass”). A lot of track around ’62 is played on the upright, like My Baby Love, Heatwave, etc.

    May 16, 2013
    • Hmm. Thanks for that. I think you may be right about “Heat Wave”, and there are probably others. But what’s your source for his description of the bass guitar as the “pussy bass”?

      May 16, 2013
  11. The Dr Licks book is a great labour of love, but I was always puzzled by the omission of Rick Danko. He was really his own player, but journalists often referenced Jamerson when writing about Rick. The tone of his fretless Ampeg also had some of Jamerson’s aural aura about it…

    May 16, 2013
    • Didn’t Danko’s (unique and wonderful) style come from the early experience as a tuba player? I think that’s true — and if so, it links him to the very earliest jazz, in which the string bass gradually took over from the tuba. Some guys moved from one to the other, e.g. Steve Brown of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and Pete Briggs of some early Louis Armstrong bands, and even Red Callender, who played with Armstrong and Lester Young and became a top LA session man in the Fifties and Sixties.

      May 16, 2013
  12. Totally right, but I remember even Allen Toussaint saying he was absolutely stumped by what notes Rick chose to play, that he couldn’t figure out where he was coming from, and for that reason really loved his playing.

    May 16, 2013
  13. Mick Steels #

    Interesting discussion, long way from Pete Briggs to James Jamerson. Every jazz critic should know the personnel of the Hot 7 by heart and, obviously, Mr Williams comes in to that category! Don’t forget the mighty Wellman Braud, who also doubled on brass bass and upright, along with Pops Foster one of founding fathers of modern bass playing. Duke thought so much of him he included a portrait of Braud on his later day classic album ‘New Orleans Suite’.

    May 17, 2013
  14. Thinking of Maria Muldaur there was of course Freebo who doubled on tuba and electric bass with Maria, Bonnie Raitt and others.

    May 17, 2013
  15. “No More Tear Stained Make Up” actually is from The Vandellas “Watchout” LP, FYI….. “Dance Party” hit the shelves a full year before it was recorded in the summer of ’66.

    May 17, 2013
  16. Excellent blog post and comments from readers. Am a huge Jamerson fan and a small part of my year is dedicated to learning his basslines. Such beautiful artistry – the Rachmaninov, Picasso and Hemingway of the bass!

    May 27, 2013
  17. I had the pleasure of playing four nights with JJ, Eddie Willis and Pistol Allen in a Detroit club when I was working with Esther Phillips in the early 1970’s. JJ was a lovely chap and all three of them were very open and gentle with a young 26 year old white boy, a novice from South London. Tim Hinkley

    June 29, 2015

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